Wednesday, September 6, 2017


by Roger Pe
September 17, 2017 issue
Business Mirror

In 2013, Typhoon Yolanda destroyed around 44 million coconut trees throughout the country, putting the livelihoods of more than two million Filipino farmers in jeopardy. The disaster caused the Philippines to skid from number one to number two as the world’s biggest coconut producing country. 

Thank God, most coconut trees in Quezon were spared. Today, the province is poised to reclaim our top global ranking and is bidding to be one of Calabarzon’s most visited places for its natural beauty, historical significance and unique agro-tourism attractions.

I knew of Quezon as an elongated wall on the map at the southeastern border of Luzon facing the Pacific, a province close to Sierra Madre mountain range, always battered by typhoons and seemed so distant. I also knew that it was a land of countless coconut trees and “Lambanog”, the local vodka, came from there. So when an invitation came my way to check it out, I dropped everything and joined the trip. 

From Manila, traversing through SLEX was a fantastic ride. Our highway system in this part of south Manila, indeed, is a proud achievement by the Filipino. I took a 15-minute nap from Southwoods and woke up in Calamba. The next thing I knew, we have reached San Pablo City and nearing Santo Tomas. 

A few minutes more of enjoying the green scenery, Villa Escudero, at the western Batangas border entering Tiaong town, beckoned. That signaled we were in Quezon. 
And then there was Candelaria and Sariaya as we snaked through the province’s Eco-Road. On both sides of the highway, bamboo stalls greeted motorists with their local produce. If Tagaytay has pineapples, jackfruits and other fruits in season, these towns paint the scenery with bright hues of red, orange, and yellows coming from baskets and baskets of luscious “Rambutan” (native Lychees).

Quezon until now is full of coco trees. The breadth and magnitude of its land covered with “the tree of life” beat any coconut-producing province in the entire Philippines. New hybrid trees have replaced aging ones. They are not emaciated looking and tall like in olden times. They are now sturdier, bear more fruits and resistant to pestilence. 

Lucena, capital city

We arrived in the capital city that still has a number of beautifully maintained heritage houses. From the looks of it, Lucena is prosperous, bustling and energetic though the streets are narrow. It even has two malls showing movies simultaneously being shown in Manila. 

Alberto Bay, Jr., Acting Head, Quezon Tourism Office and Raquel Barnett, Senior Tourism Operations Officer, welcomed us to Bulwagang Kalilayan, a restored art deco building that hosts important provincial government meetings. The highlight of the meeting was the province’s traditional offering of hospitality – a “Lambanog” jigger sip for every guest. 

“Would you want pure “Lambanog” or with fruity flavor, take your pick,” Bay asked us as we were partaking our hearty lunch of broiled Tilapia wrapped in Banana leaves. He then explained the tradition of welcoming guests to Quezon. 
“One must participate as a sign of respect,” he opened. For the uninitiated like me, I told myself: “I hope we are not going to get zonked out on midday.” I learned that it was far from anything like what I was thinking. It was supposed to be a gesture of good tidings. 

Even the young or women, participate in the “Lambanog” ritual. “It was always an insult to refuse a drink although one is not obliged to take it,” Bay said. Even before the Spanish came, the act of drinking “Lambanog” was already part of Quezon’s culture. “Quezonians are naturally social and the purpose of drinking is to feel good and enjoy each other’s company, regardless of gender, age or social status,” he said. 

He went on to say that Quezonians do not respect drunkards and despise people who have lost self-control in the act of socializing. “Here, getting drunk is considered boorish and indicative of a flawed character,” he explained. 

Communal customs are adhered to when drinking “Lambanog”. So when the ceremonial “Lambanog” drinking began at the Kalilayan ballroom, the host customarily threw the first shot and drank the next. He then refilled the shot glass for the next drinker. 

Only one glass was used (as customarily done) and each person must utter “Naay Po” (meaning, here’s my drink for everybody to acknowledge one’s “tagay” or turn). Then the “kaumpukan” (circle of friends) answers with “Pakinabangan Po” (don’t get wasted and make use of it). It goes on and on until the bottle of “Lambanog” is emptied. 

Welcome to “Niyogyugan Festival” 
We then made a quick tour of the city, and by nightfall, visited “Niyogyugan Festival’s” piece de resistance, the jawdropping booths of Quezon’s towns. What a sight to behold, they transformed the façade of the provincial capitol into a screen with multicolored lights dancing to the beat of the festival theme song.

The booths were all made from parts of the coconut tree and portrayed the uniqueness of the towns and their people. Polillo showed sea creatures in and out of its colorful booth. Atimonan had a cascading ‘waterfall’ at its booth entrance. Unisan showcased beautiful native handicrafts. General Luna adorned its booth with colorful masks and portrait of the hero it was named after.

Gumaca was one of my favorites for its basket lanterns and ceiling that was fully covered with native fans. Infanta used layered coconut shells to show a day in the life of a coconut farmer. General Nakar had a green roof showing a rainforest and a cave. Lopez town was literally like an open book to show its stature as an education center in Quezon.
The stars of the show were, of course, the local delicacies, “Pancit Habhab”, “Lucban Longganisa”, “Bangus Tinapa” from Lucena City, and “Suman” from Infanta among others. Worth mentioning also is the province’s cuisine that is richly influenced by “Gata” or coconut milk.
The capitol grounds became a veritable "mega-agricultural shopping mall”. Exhibitors reportedly earned over P15 million in profits for products derived from coconut, including virgin coconut oil, lambanog, skimmed milk, buko water drink, coco vinegar, flour, chips, sugar, cheese, yogurt cream, and sauces.

There were coco furniture, handicrafts, house décor, fiber and geonet used in landscaping. The festival’s holiday spirit was spiced up up by day and night musical concerts, a beauty pageant, culminating into cultural parade, street dancing and dance showdown that lasted till sunset.

The month-long celebration was in commemoration of President Manuel L. Quezon’s August 19, 1878 birthday. “We applaud the local government units headed by the office of Governor David ‘Jay-Jay’ Suarez for successfully presenting farm tourism at its best,” said Secretary Wanda Tulfo-Teo of the Department of Tourism.

Teo echoed Suarez’s message that “Niyogyugan” is also a fitting tribute to both the coconut and the Filipino farmers not only in Quezon Province, but throughout the country. It is a celebration of life, a kaleidoscope of Filipino cultural diversity, our resiliency and our virtue of hard work,” said Suarez. 

“Thousands of visitors came from all over the world, who got the chance to see Quezon’s world-class destinations like Mt. Banahaw, Cagbalete Island, Villa Escudero, Balesin Island and Putting Buhangin. “A brainchild of Congresswoman Aleta Suarez, is our contribution to our tourism industry and our special way of ushering the Christmas 
,” Bay said.

After five years, the festival has become bigger, more colorful and now has also gained national recognition. “This is all because of the result of the richness of our culture, talent and the potentials of Quezonians to be great,” said Governor David Suarez.

Before midnight of Sunday, the following were declared winners of “Niyogyugan Festival”: 

Overall Champion: Infanta: 1st RunnerUp - Atimonan, 2nd RunnerUp - Real. The Float Competition winners were: 1st Place - Infanta; 2nd Place - Padre Burgos; 3rd Place - Atimonan. 

Best Booth winners Category B) were: 1st Place - Padre Burgos; 2nd Place - Quezon; 3rd Place - Buenavista; 4th Place - Guinyangan; 5th Place - San Narciso; 6th Place- Macalelon.

Best Booth (Category A)1st Place – Infanta; 2nd Place - General Nakar; 3rd Place - Gumaca; 4th Place - Sariaya; 5th Place - Real

Full DOT support

In a one-on-one interview after the festival, Region 1V-A, Calabarzon Regional Director Rebecca Villanueva-Labit gave this writer an interesting insight on where Quezon is now and what plans her management is preparing for the province and the region as well.
What specific program of support are you giving to Quezon?
Labit: In terms of tourism development, we are presently doing the following: 1. Support to POGI-REINA Cluster (Polillo Group of Islands and Real Infant General Nakar) in the tourism master development planning attuned to the 2016-2022 National Tourism Development Program (NTDP). 2. Conduct Various Training Programs on Tourism Awareness for various municipalities, tour guiding, Basic Statistics and Data Gathering and many more.

As the head of tourism for the region, what is your vision for Quezon and for Calabarzon? 

Calabarzon has many things to offer – that’s the reason why our shout out is "ALL YOU WANT IS HERE". We have already generated 26.1 million same day visitors and 4.5 million overnight staying visitors in 2016. 

We are very strong in Farm Tourism, Faith Tourism, Culinary, Eco Tourism, Culture and Arts, History and Heritage. The Region needs to be one in terms of programs as we encourage local government units to provide policies and strong legislation to help support the tourism industry.

What challenges are most daunting in developing Quezon as a destination?
Challenges are numerous. There is a need to organize stakeholders, provide for adequate ordinances on solid waste management, traffic, standard services for tourism establishments, to name a few. The cooperation of the people is important because tourism is the people's business.

What steps are you initiating to manage and tackle them? 

Constant collaboration, meetings and training programs are constantly being done to make people and those in authority to seriously look into the various aspects of tourism, we encourage them to do something and implement what is necessary.

How would you like to see Quezon during your term and in the next 5 years? 
Quezon being the farthest from among the five provinces is a beautiful destination in itself. There is an array of tourism activities that can be developed, available resources, both human capital and raw materials, long coastline adequate for beach tourism.
It has a unique character, as a coconut rich province, and very accessible to almost 5 provinces both by land, sea and air. I see Quezon as leading destination for beach tourism because of its islands and long coastline, rich tradition and culture, beautiful and talented constituents.
However, we cannot do everything for them. LGU's together with the private sector needs to set a common framework to tourism development to generate jobs, sustainable source of income and revenue to the local government.

Do you think the region can compete with the more popular regions in the country? 

Of course.

If you’ll do it your way, what are the three most important things you would do to make Quezon enjoy an unprecedented increase in tourist arrivals?
Faith Tourism - We have “Kamay ni Jesus” that generates tourist arrivals
Festivals - The Pahiya, Arana't Baluarte and Agawan happening in May 15 are significant events that can be honed to gain more tourist arrivals.
Niyogyugan in the last 3 years has improved a lot not only, in terms of participation by the entire province, but the movement of people from one place to the other, coupled by numerous products it can boast to support tourism. It has all the ingredients to become another major festival. Careful planning, collaboration, proper promotions and marketing need to be done to make it mainstream.

What do you think are Quezon’s most unique attractions that other regions don’t have?

People. People will always make the difference, If we have peace loving, god-fearing environmentally aware people, that will be an outstanding characteristic to make it as a destination apart from the rest.

What kind of infrastructure projects Quezon needs right now? 

More roads so more tourists can go to more destinations as well as more state of the art hotels and facilities.

In one word describe Quezon? 


Onward Farm tourism
At the Madrid Fusión Manila early this year, DOT
underscored the importance of agriculture and farm tourism in the Philippines in relation to making world-class dishes.

Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo said: “The Philippines is blessed with abundant agriculture, as well as vast greenery and pristine scenery, a perfect combination for gourmet, health relaxation and leisure activities. This has given rise to agriculture or farm tourism, another profitable endeavor for tour operators and farmers,” she said during the launch of the Calabarzon Farm Tourism Travel Guide at the SMX Convention Center.

Teo said that DOT has long recognized the value-added potential of farm and traditional agricultural sites as income-generating tourist destinations. “The idea of farms as tourist spots is not new. Imagine harvesting fresh farm produce for lunch, while your young ones wet their feet in a watering hole nearby,” she said.

Last year, DOT accredited 14 more agri-tourism farms across the country, many of which are in the Calabarzon region. Among them were Costales Nature Farms, Cathy Turvill of Amadeo Nurture Farmacy, MoCa Family Farm, Terra Verde Ecofarm, Gourmet Farms, Ato Belen’s Farm, Forest Wood Garden, Flor’s Farm and Garden, Kahariam Farms, and Teofely Nature Farms, Nurture Farms, Domingo Permafarms and Chad’s Nature Farm.

Previously, Lucban, Quezon hosted the 3rd Farm Tourism Conference with the theme “Healthy Soils for a Healthy Life” in support of the United Nations (UN) declaration of 2015 as the International Year of Soils, in cooperation with the Province of Quezon, Department of Tourism (DOT), International School of Sustainable Tourism (ISST), and the DILG. 

Tree of Life

Based on latest statistics, Quezon Province rivals three Davao provinces as the country’s top coconut producer. It has a total coconut plantation of 391,196 hectares, representing 78 percent of its agricultural land, with 78 million coconut trees. 
As the world's second biggest producer of coconut, the Philippines is a major source of coco products consumed around the world. 

The country’s coconut industry provides a livelihood for one-third of the country's population. Our country's 338 million coconut-bearing trees produce on average 15.344 billion nuts a year, with coconut product exports, usually going to U.S., Japan, Germany, and China.

Despite the incredible growth and massive global interest worldwide, 60% of Filipino coconut farmers live below the poverty line. According to researches made by the Philippine Coconut Authority, many layers of middlemen with organized cartel system, control pricing and expensive transport and handling costs add woes to coconut farmers.

Based on current Philippine Coconut Authority’s statistics, the Philippines has
  • 3.517 million hectares planted to coconut trees
  • 26% of total agricultural land
  • 68 out of 81 provinces are coconut areas
  • 329.9 million are fruit bearing trees
  • Southern Leyte in the Eastern Visayas is the Philippines’ second largest coconut producing region behind Mindanao where 56 per cent of total production comes from, namely from the Davao region.
The Top 10 Coconut-Producing Provinces: 
1. Quezon – 1,114,760.53 metric tons
2. Davao Oriental – 1,046,223.72 metric tons
3. Davao del Sur – 837,687.04 metric tons
4. Leyte – 680,139.83 metric tons
5. Zamboanga del Norte – 599,248.82 metric tons
6. Lanao del Norte – 566,848.00 metric tons
7. Zamboanga del Sur – 554,971.66 metric tons
8. Misamis Occidental – 546,441.00 metric tons
9. Maguindanao – 541,040.90 metric tons
10. Misamis Oriental – 484,950.00 metric tons 
Source: Bureau of Agricultural Statistics 

Davao is the top coconut-producing region in the country with 11 of the 13 preferred coconut varieties present, said a Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) Board Member. Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) showed that in 2015, Davao Region produced a total of 2,246,187.53 metric tons, the highest in the country. 
The rest of the coconut producing regions in the Philippines are Northern Mindanao (1.85 million metric tons), Zamboanga Peninsula (1.68 million metric tons), Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) (1.39 million metric tons), and Calabarzon (1.38 million).

Province of Quezon

Quezon has 39 towns and two cities, Tayabas and Lucena, the most progressive and seat of provincial government. The latter is also independent from the administrative and fiscal supervision of the province, but is eligible to vote for provincial officials. Metro Lucena has an estimated population of 700,000, which is mostly concentrated in south-central portion of the province. 

The province is the food basket of Calabarzon, producing 200,000 metric tons of rice and corn annually, or around 42% of the total rice and corn requirement of the region.

The two most famous festivals of Quezon are the “Pahiyas” and “Niyugyugan” celebrations. “Pahiyas”, the oldest of them, has become a brand of Lucban town. It honors San Isidro, patron saint of farmers and it is held every May 15 of each year. People in the town compete against each other in decorating their houses. The most creative (using varied farm produce, as well as the trademark “Kiping” (colorful thin sheets of glutinous rice shaped into big leaves) are adjudged the winners.

Spectacular beaches and springs abound in the northern part of Quezon facing the Pacific Ocean. The island of Balesin, for example, has become the playground of the rich and famous. The exclusive island resort features seven uniquely themed resorts and villas.

Jomalig has the famous Salibungot Beach. Real is becoming famous for surfing, rivaling Siargao. Cagbalete Island in Mauban boasts of white beach and a beautiful sand bar. Mainit Hot Springs in Tayabas will invigorate those who want to take a dip into its refreshing waters.  

Heritage houses? Quezon is plenty of them. The province is home to a number of old Spanish houses from 17th to early 20th century up to the time when the Americans came. Among the most popular are the Enriquez-Gala Mansion, Gala-Rodriguez house, Villa Sariaya and Villa Escudero, each with its own story to tell about the opulence of coconut landlords.

Other Spanish-era structures also exist outside Sariaya like the the Casa de Comunidad de Tayabas, Malagonlong Bridge and the churches of Lucban and Tayabas.
Mystic Mount Banahaw covers a big part of the province. Considered an active volcano it is very popular among religious pilgrims and hikers. Just the sight of the majestic mountain makes one refreshed.